Path to Promotion May Lead Through Asia

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If you've got the financial skills and the right cultural understanding, getting experience in Asia can be a step to helping you reach the C-Suite.

With interest in Asia-Pacific growing, top banks, established investment houses and even private equity firms are expanding both operations and partnerships abroad. For the right professionals, this might be the time to look East for new career opportunities. Bulge bracket firms especially are in hot pursuit of experienced financial professionals with capital markets expertise, who can tap into burgeoning markets such as India, Singapore and China.

Well-known players like Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers have established outposts and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region. Among the advantages: The difference in time zones facilitates running a 24-hour business. With operations an around-the-clock function, having key players in a different time zone from European and U.S. operations serves to facilitate and complement work done at corporate headquarters.

And, according to the study "The Dream Team: Delivering Leadership in Asia," from executive recruiter Korn/Ferry International, globalization and growth in Asia's "economic muscle," especially India and China, will continue for some time to come.

Culture Over Language

The report notes that executives seeking to lead in Asia-Pacific need to be especially committed and culturally sensitive if they want to succeed. The skills sets noted include the "ability to understand, respect and empathize with local cultures. This includes recognizing that Asia is not homogenous, and that South Korea, China, India, Thailand and other countries in the region each have their unique social and religious mores, and what may be acceptable in one may not be so in the other. A business leader who is not sensitive to the intra-Asian nuances will not get very far."

The report also notes the differences in doing business there versus here, making it clear that completing deals often requires extra patience for executives in certain parts of Asia-Pacific. The survey cites the example of "Citibank's takeover bid for Guangdong Commercial Bank getting re-started after 14 months of suspended animation" as just one example of the more taxing business environment. Korn/Ferry suggests those working in Asia need to view their deals in the "long term." So, if you like to get things done quickly, working in countries like India or China may not be right for you.

"The people that are needed abroad are those with the hard science and math minds - those that are well-educated," says Mary Lou Giaquint, a partner at the Tempe, Ariz., financial search firm Comprehensive Recruiting. With many Asian placements, knowing the local language isn't always necessary, though it is a boon to the resume. Says Giaquint: "The business, especially in Japan, is mostly conducted in English."

In Singapore, speaking Mandarin Chinese can be an advantage, but if you're well-educated and have the right financial background, employers might overlook a lack of it.

Cash and Advancement

In Giaquint's view, many moves are motivated by the cash incentives firms pay to those who take assignments in Asia. Tom Tilghman, senior consultant in the global consulting group of Towers Perrin in New York, agrees. "Money can be a big part of why some finance professionals are moving there, but the impact on the career can also be the bigger thing," he notes. "The international arena in this industry is where a lot of the action is."

Plus, says Tilghman, today you can't be considered a senior executive without some sort of international experience or expertise under your belt. "Look at who takes the top positions, and almost all of these people have international experience," he notes. "If you're from a tiny company, then it's not a big deal." However, if you want to work at a big firm, a move to the Asia-Pacific region may be in the cards, since many of well-known players are now running 50 percent of their operation in the U.S. and 50 percent abroad - with the international side growing all the time.

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